By Brian Powell
Shantanu Bala, a Class of 2011 Flinn Scholar and Arizona State University student, has been awarded the prestigious Thiel Fellowship that will match him with the world’s brightest young entrepreneurs and Silicon Valley leaders for the next two years.
Bala will be graduating from ASU in December with a double major in computer science and psychology before starting the fellowship, valued at $100,000, which will allow him to continue his research and benefit from interactions with leading tech entrepreneurs, investors, scientists, thought leaders, futurists, and innovators.
Bala, 20, is developing a system for using a real-time video and audio feed—potentially via a smartphone—to convey visual facial expressions and auditory cues using a series of vibrations across a user’s skin.
The initial real-world application is to help people with disabilities such as sensory or visual impairment who may struggle with social interactions because they cannot see or understand gestures, Bala said from San Francisco, where he is spending the summer in advance of starting the fellowship.
Bala is a member of the fourth class of Thiel Fellows and the first Fellow from Arizona. This year’s 20 Fellows represent nine U.S. states, plus Canada, Bulgaria, and India. The fellowship’s namesake is Peter Thiel, a technology entrepreneur, venture capitalist, and philanthropist. He was a co-founder of PayPal and an early investor in Facebook.
Since high school, Bala has performed research at The Center for Cognitive Ubiquitous Computing (CUbiC) at ASU, an interdisciplinary research center focused on cutting-edge research in human-centered multimedia computing focusing on assistive, rehabilitative, and health-care applications. After his sophomore year of high school, he sent an unsolicited email to the director of the lab, Dr. Sethuraman Panchanathan, who is now the Senior Vice President of Knowledge Enterprise Development at ASU. It paid off, as Bala was invited to the lab.
After being selected as a Flinn Scholar, Bala chose to attend ASU and continued at CUbiC.
“What stuck with me was at ASU there seemed to be a lot of opportunities as long as I was looking for them,” Bala said. “The impression I had from other universities was you had to compete just to get research opportunities, but at ASU, if you talk to your professors and have a conversation, opportunities would pop up.”
The fellowship will allow Bala to extend the amount of time on his current research, rather than discontinuing and starting something else after graduation.
The Flinn Experience
Bala, who graduated from Barry Goldwater High School in Phoenix in 2011, has benefited from his Flinn Scholar experience throughout college and in preparing for the Thiel opportunity.
“One of the main values I received from the Flinn Scholarship is the network of people you are introduced to,” Bala said. “There are so many amazing people at different Arizona universities.”
“You have a group of people who are automatically your friends when you are just starting college and that was something that was both a lot of fun and valuable,” he added.
As part of his Flinn Scholarship, Bala studied abroad for a full academic year, splitting his time between the University of Copenhagen in Denmark and the University of Waikato in Hamilton, New Zealand.
Bala picked the two locations because they were two countries he didn’t know a lot about and had never visited, and seemed like places to explore. In addition, the University of Copenhagen and the University of Waikato had solid computer-science and psychology programs, respectively, he said.
His sister, Shruti Bala, was a Class of 2007 Flinn Scholar; she is now a medical student at the University of Arizona College of Medicine-Phoenix. Bala said he had seen the opportunities his sister was exposed to as a Flinn Scholar, such as international travel and college activities, and was motivated to apply.
An Entrepreneurial Mind
Bala’s research interests aren’t exclusively in the domain that he has explored through CUbiC. When Bala was studying abroad in Copenhagen, the cold Danish winter kept him inside. It was in this context that a concept for an ebooks startup was born.
Bala started the company, Ebook Glue (ebookglue.com), about 1 year ago. Seven others now work with him, including three Flinn Scholars, to write software to make text-based documents compatible on different reading devices. The idea is to generate a file that works on all devices, benefitting website owners, libraries, universities, businesses, and others.
“I had to stay indoors, so I would pull out my computer and write code,” Bala said. “I built a basic version of it and put it online and started using it.”
Ebook Glue was one of 20 student-led startup companies at ASU included in the Edson Student Entrepreneur Initiative’s 2013-2014 cohort. The student team received $20,000 in seed funding, office space, mentorship, and training to help launch their venture.
While Ebook Glue is not the focus of Bala’s fellowship, entrepreneurial activity and the ability to form a team is one of the expectations of Thiel Fellows.
The Thiel Fellowship
Bala read about the Thiel Fellowship a couple of years ago. It was a high-profile program in the Silicon Valley tech scene for people under age 20, but Bala said he didn’t think to apply because he didn’t understand its goal or purpose entirely. There was also some controversy surrounding it, namely that if accepted, the Fellow is not allowed to take classes for two years. For most Fellows, this means taking a leave of absence from college or dropping out of school.
Bala is in a unique position where he will be able to graduate from ASU before starting the fellowship in December. Bala, because of skipping a middle-school grade and graduating from ASU in 3 years, was able to apply as a 19 year-old at the end of 2013 and start the fellowship immediately following graduation.
“I definitely wanted to graduate, not only because I put in the commitment, but also I’ve been working at the university and with amazing people for so long,” Bala said. “It would almost be a weird contradiction if I decided to leave and drop everything.”
He plans to live in the Phoenix area, continue his research at ASU, and make frequent trips to the Bay Area.
The Thiel Foundation will match its Fellows with mentors, will help teach them about business development, fundraising, pitching, and hiring, and may suggest a brief internship. There are also meetings, retreats, conferences, presentations, and other networking and professional events.
The Thiel Foundation states that over the past three years, the Fellows from the Classes of 2011, 2012 and 2013 started dozens of companies, created more than 182 jobs, and generated more than $87 million in economic activity. They acquired this funding by raising venture capital, earning grants and sponsorships, shipping products, generating revenue, and by selling the companies they created.